Jackie Kay's Blog

National Poetry Day 2006: Identity

Rings on her fingers, bells on her toes

30 September 2006
On my way down to London yesterday to read poems in St Giles beautiful church with Moniza Alvi,Simon Armitage and Nick Laird I was reading in the paper that women whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers are likely to be quicker off their feet. Much sportier! I looked at my hands on the train. My ring finger is significantly longer! Ha! It said that the longer the ring finger the more butch you are too. Goodness! But men and women who have long ring fingers are more prone to heart disease and autism. (Not so pleasing.) Also, women with longer index fingers are supposed to be more intelligent (surely that can't be true!) Still I liked the running bit. I used to train to be a runner in the Scottish school girl championships. I loved running. It made me feel high; it was like flying. I used to train five days a week, practising Mrs Fife's vicious hill starts and a horrible exercise called a burpy - where you had to leap in the air, drop to the ground knees bent and simultaneously kick your legs out behind you as straight as possible all in one go. I think if I tried that now I would fracture my tibia and my fibia. Actually I did break my left leg badly, compound fracture, in a motorbike accident on my Honda 50, when I was seventeen. I hit three cars and went right over the top of one, landing, handily, outside the graveyard in Kirkintilloch Road (my mum said she could have just thrown me over the wall. ) That put a stop to the running. It was a year and a half before I walked properly again. But if that accident hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have been a writer. It changed the way that I saw everything. Having a walking stick for a long time changed the shape of my teen years and got me writing poems. I've been thinking how events that happen to us, particularly traumatic ones, like accidents or losing parents young, alter our identity and reshape the course of our lives. We're always thinking if this hadn't happened or this, what would we have been like, what would our lives have been like. The road not taken, or the running track not run. Years later, I bumped into my old trainer outside a post office in Tenerife, 'Mrs Fife!' I said my voice reverting back to a fourteen year old's going up really high at the end. She remembered me. She still looked sporty in her sixties in that way that gym teachers look, timeless. Alas, I don't look sporty any more. I wrote this poem a while ago about running . A children's poem.


I wore some other girl’s red running shoes
with real spikes like rose thorns under my foot.

I got into position: my limbs seriously tense,
one knee on the asphalt, one foot flat, all that.

I crouched over, hands down, like a predator
ready for prey; and took off, took flight

on the red running track, so fast I could be fear
running, a live fright, a chance vision.

My dark hair, wild in the wind.
My arms pounding light years, thin air, euphoria.

I flew past in some other girl’s red running shoes
round the red track, near the railway line.

I raced straight towards the future.
The past was left standing.

I ran and ran; my feet became the land.
I couldn’t tell if the ground was moving under my feet

shifting sand, or if I might just stop like a heart beat.
It felt as if I would run forever, hard pounding feet

until I ran right into myself, years on sat still, heavy, past forty, groaning, the streak lightning gone.

It was a lovely evening last night in St Giles Church (which is thought of as the poets' church because of a long association of poets there - In 1845 Elizabeth Barrett married Robert Browning at the communion table in the south aisle,)because most of us took the theme of identity very personally and read poems about our families and the places we are from. Soon, I'm going to put up a poem from each of us.
It's interesting to think about how much our hands tell us about ourselves, not just our fingerprints, but the lines on our hands. As children, we loved trying to count how many children we were going to have when grown up, to work out the heart line and the life line and the broken heart line, believing that our fate, our lives were already mapped out on our hands. Maybe an idea for National Poetry day would be for people to handwrite a poem about hands and give it to someone they love. Or send some here.

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Poetry Readings

28 September 2006
I'm off to London in a little while to read at Giles Church with Simon Armitage, Moniza Alvi and Nick Laird on the theme of identity. Haven't yet decided exactly what I will read. I'll decide on the train. I like train journeys. When my son Matthew was wee (three) he asked, Mum why are you always going to Poetry? He thought poetry was a place and you got on a train and got off at this place called Poetry. I think that's a lovely idea for a poem, but I've never been able to write it. Maybe somebody else can?
I remember the first time I ever went to London from Glasgow with my best pal who drummed 'Sassenachs Sassenachs here we come on,' the train table. Being a girl is starting to feel far away, like the girl I was is across the water waving. Our own idea of ourselves starts to really shift and change in our forties. It's true after all what everyone says. I often like imagining myself as a very old woman. Here are two new poems that I will read tonight. One in the voice of a woman who is about one hundred years old, and one about my dear friend Julia Darling, who I wrote about before. Julia kept a very moving and wonderful blog that I am about to edit for Radio Four.


You might forget the exact sound of her voice
Or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
Curled into the shape of a half moon,

When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving
Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –

Heil Ya Ho Boys, Let her go Boys
And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
Her heart light, her face almost smiling.

And what I didn’t know or couldn’t see then
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.


I always looked out at the world,
And wondered if the world looked back at me,
Standing on the edge of something,
On my face- the wind from the cold sea.

Across the waters were mirrors to see
Faces that looked like me,
People caught between two places,
People crossing over the seas.

And it seemed from my croft
-With the old stones and the sheep,
And the sound of the songs in my sleep-
That the music of folk somewhere meets

On the edge of the place we would be.
I’ve lived through some hard times.
My face is lined; my body so frail.
I used to think I might be able –

When the river ran to meet the sea,
When the sun and moon shared the sky-
To look out as far as the eye could see,
And raise a glass to the girl looking back at me.

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Screen Sharing

27 September 2006
I've been thinking a lot about how technology changes our identity. I often wonder if, when I become old, I'll become the same kind of old as my grandmother; or if I'll become a different old altogether, some kind of ghastly 'new old' with walking stick in one hand and mobile phone in the other, texting my pals with my soft thumbs.
Yesterday I had an unusual experience. I had my computer stolen recently from my son's eighteenth birthday party, which was very upsetting, and ever since then I haven't been able to get outlook express set up again. I've tried and had countless conversations with people based in different parts of the world, and not got very far. Yesterday though I got a man called Surjit who made me type in a website which allowed him to see what I was seeing. A message popped up which said 'This computer is now being accessed remotely.' Surjit told me not to touch my mouse! as he moved it around the screen. We continued with this 'screen sharing session' until he had solved my problem, which was wonderful. Not so wonderful the 400 emails that starting immediately flowing in. When the message came up at the end which said, Do you want to end you screen sharing session, I felt quite sad! It was such a bizarre experience seeing somebody move around your own screen that wasn't you. Like some sort of on line alter ego. A screen shadow self.
Last night I took my son to see Mary Barton at The Royal Exchange; a play that made me think a lot again about money. Today I went to visit the very dilapidated Gaskell House where Elizabeth lived for fifteen year. The house is need of money to return it to what it once was. Being there made me think of the identity of houses, how a house tells a story, a biography of the people who live in it . And if all of us just sat down and wrote poems that were our addresses, we would soon have a kind of rough autobiography. Charlotte Bronte stayed there twice, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dickens. The Mill owners were furious with Elizabeth's portrayal of them in Mary Barton. I admire a rich person that thinks about the poor, especially then. She was troubled by living in such a big house and wanted the house to give pleasure to everybody.
The woman showing me around the house, which is a bit creepy, asked me if there is another Jackie Kay who writes poems. I said I don't know. She said, one that wrote The Adoption Papers. I said , That was me. And she said, But I thought she was blonde.
A lot of people say this when they meet me, that they think I was going to have red hair or be blonde. Maybe it is all to do with hearing a voice on the radio. Maybe people always picture red or blonde hair when they hear a Scottish voice.
I wonder what it would have been like if Jane Eyre and Bertha Rochester had ever shared a screen? Maybe it would have been like Wide Sargasso Sea.
I wonder how long it will be before people develop shared cyber selves, and whether they will be opposites. There is another Jackie Kay who shares almost the same email address as me. I have a dot though and she has no dot.
Tomorrow I will post some poems.

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The Colour of Money

25 September 2006
I am just back from Edinburgh. I love Edinburgh, I was born there. Born in Edinburgh, brought up in Glasgow, so I've always loved both cities. I'm not one of those either- or people. I drove through the old cobbled streets, Gayfield Street, Queen Street, past Abercromby Place, past the place where my parent went in the 60s to put themselves on the waiting lists for adoption.
I read last night in a wee pub for the Shore Poets. I like groups that have been going for years. It had a great atmosphere. And there was singing. That kind of night I love, songs and poetry and whisky. I grew up on nights like that and they always make me feel at home.
Before Edinburgh I was visiting the Wigtown Book Festival staying in a very posh hotel. I took my mum and her neighbour, they have been neighbours for fifty years, and almost belong to each other. But neither my mum nor Isabel felt all that comfortable in this hotel. My mum loved her huge bathroom and we all three danced in it. My mum said this bathroom like a ballroom. I come and sit in it even when I don't need to go. She was less comfortable in the dining room ('Jackie why's everybody whispering?') I had a row with the manager because they would only offer a la carte dinner at Ł32 per head which made my mum and Isabel feel ill, just the thought of it. I said they are both in their seventies and can't eat that much. He said 'With the greatest respect Madam, most of our clients are over sixty.' Obviously ones that have always had money and are quite used to four course meals... I said. Anyway - it made me think about how money defines us, allows us to feel entitled, comfortable or not.
After dinner we retreated to a library/ lounge where a very old woman was sitting with her feet up. She clearly was comfortable there, and beautifully expensively dressed. My mum got talking to her and mentioned something about her daughter. The old woman said, 'Is that lady your daughter?' Yes, my mum said. There was a pause while she took this in. Then she said'Your daughter's awful tanned dear, is she like that every day?' My mum said 'Her father is African, Nigerian.' The old woman looked very surprised and said, 'Does that mean you are married to a Nigerian?' her voice going up really high at the end. 'No, my daughter's adopted,' my mum said. 'Your daughter looks like a clever lady,' the old woman said. Imagine if that were possible - changing colour every day. What a state the world would be in. Nobody would know who to fight!
It reminded me of another woman that my mum and I met in Drymen the other week. I was trying on a top that time and my mum said, 'That colour suits you.' And this woman said, 'I think that colour suits you too dear, where are you from?' I said 'Glasgow.' She paused and then she said, 'Is that right ... because I've got a friend from the Dominican Republic.' That would look good on a t-shirt. I've got a friend from the Dominican Republic.
People always thinking you are not from where you are doesn't actually stop me feeling that I belong to Scotland. I belong to Scotland even if Scotland doesn't belong to me.
People always ask things like what are you first? Is being a woman more important than being black or Scottish... But I can't really think like that. Right now I think being a person who is from money, who has the confidence of money in the family, money going back generations, money and land and heirlooms and things, is very very different to a person who comes from no money going back and back generations, no money, no land, no heirlooms, few things.

I like the blog before bed best. Maybe it will cure the insomnia. A good rant. Then sleep!

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22 September 2006
I am just back from staying in a small village in Wales called Cellan. A few weeks ago I stayed in Fife in a place called Cellardyke and the two names appear side by side in my road atlas. My grandmother came from Fife and everytime I am there I think about the mining communities - she was from Lochgelly- that are no longer there, and about how much our identity changes depending on where we live and what survives of the community we live in. My grandfather was buried twice alive down the pit and each time was saved. I was thinking about how obsessed our society has become with tracing family trees and how different that whole thing is if you are adopted. I'm interested in my grandmother, my adoptive mother's mother and her mother and as far back as they can remember because it relates to them but it doesn't relate to me in the same way.
When you are adopted the tracing business starts at the top with your mother and father and you are lucky if you find out much about them, never mind going back and back. And even if you find them, they won't necessarily reveal all that much about you, and if you are looking for answers to questions you won't necessarily get them answered. I wonder if adopted people are as interested in tracing the adopted family tree as the genetic one. I wonder how many people feel more themselves by knowing how to go back and back beyond the communities that don't exist anymore.
When I was in Cellan, I drove to Cei Bach and swam in the sea at Calgary Bay. I noticed two old women getting into the sea and thought if they can do it so can I, even though the large dead jellyfish I saw, bloated and blue, nearly put me off. But for that moment being a woman who could swim in the September sea was enough for me! Never mind what the ancestors did.
Today, Manchester was baking hot whilst the south west of Scotland, where I am going tomorrow, to Wigtown Book Fair, was suffering wild gales. Everywhere we go, there are people who have never moved very far away and who are maybe more sure of themselves, than the people who have.
When I was in Nairn earlier this year, at the book festival, a woman told me I probably wouldn't get any questions because Nairn people are shy, and if I did get a question, it would be from an 'incomer'. Which made me think about how people are either incomers or the opposite, what would that word be? - and how in some places, even if your family lives there for four generations, you can still be thought of as an incomer. Maybe the thing is that we belong to ourselves and we create our own identity out of that, whether we are coming in or going out!

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15 September 2006

I'm starting to like blogging. I think I even like the word blog. It sounds like a big dod of cream. A dollop. It doesn't take itself too seriously.
I flew home yesterday from Southampton and had the worst flight ever. The plane took a deep plunge through the air and everyone's drink went flying up to the overhead lockers. Quite a few people screamed. I didn't scream but I did think I was going to die. A lot of hard men said they were bricking it. Apparently some huge air pockets are hidden from pilots. Anyway, it made me think again about identity and whether or not your identity continues after you are gone! I think in some ways it might intensify because people who love you continue to think about you -hopefully mainly your good bits, and even exaggerate them. I was thinking about how much our identity changes after death; it certainly doesn't die because in a sense we are alive as long as the people that love us are alive.
In the taxi coming home, the taxi driver hearing my Glasgow accent and being quick to identify it, asked me if I was a Celtic or Rangers fan. I told him Celtic. He told me he was a United man. Then he said, 'I was red before I was born probably.' You get born into it. Which also got me to thinking about how much of our identity is kicking around (so to speak) before we even get there.

Here's the Julia Darling poem I promised last time:


I would like us to live like two lighthouses
at the mouth of the river each with her own lamp.

We could see each other across the water,
which would be dangerous and uncrossable.

I could watch your shape, your warm shadow,
moving in the upper rooms. We would have jokes.

Jokes that were only ours, signs and secrets,
flares on birthdays, a rocket at Christmas.

Clouds would be cities, we would look for omens
and learn the impossible language of birds.

We would meet, of course, in cinemas, cafes,
but then we would return to our towers,

knowing the other was a light on the water,
a beam of alignment. It would never be broken.

Julia Darling
Apology for Absence

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13 September 2006
I am down in Portland right now and yesterday climbed the 153 steps to the top of one of the three lighthouses. I left my bag by accident there, went all the way to the bottom and then had to climb back all the way to the top to retrieve it.
The light works automatically now, a bed of mercury, glass and lead.
I was thinking about Grace Darling the light house girl rescuer. I was thinking about Julia Darling, my very good friend, who died a year and a half ago and wrote a wonderful poem called Two lighthouses, and I was thinking about relationships. How much we take our identity from those we love, and how relationships add and subtract from our sense of ourselves. In Julia Darling's poem the speaker asks for an independent relationship ' I would like us to live like two lighthouses.... each with her own lamp.'
Lighthouses give light when the light is needed, like poetry maybe. Poetry makes us think about who we are. Poetry keeps the light.
I was thinking about the sea - how people who live close to the sea are defined by it; how the sea like a complex relationship, gives and also takes away.
I wonder how much of who we are is defined by who we are not., by where we do or do not live.
Every time I am close to the sea, I wonder why I don't live right by it, and whether that would completely change my identity, my sense of myself.
People who live by the sea have the sea as part of their family in a way, like a close relative, a heaving complaining one, one minute and a calm one the next.
How much of our identity is connected to the land or the sea around us, and how much to who we love. Maybe that is why when people grieve or get separated they literally feel as if they have lost themselves, or as if they are at sea.
Looking down onto the sea from the top of the lighthouse yesterday, I felt delighted to be given my little certificate which said Congratulations you have climbed the 153 steps to the Portland lighthouse. Well, I thought I can be somebody who has climbed the lighthouse now.
I will find Julia's poem and get it for the next blog.

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first poem nick drake

08 September 2006
I always think theme of doubles is a great identity theme. How many of us get mistaken for other people, how amusing or infuriating that can be. People often assume if they first hear me speaking with my Glasgow accent on the phone that I am white. We make all sorts of assumptions about who we are and who we are not based on a handful of stats. It's a good idea maybe to write first about who we are not to find out who we are. I think I write poetry to find out who I am. But the interesting thing is that that keeps changing.
When I was very young I didn't think about being black or even realise it growing up in Scotland; then in my late teen and twenties I felt very strongly aware of being black and hid from being Scottish, thinking that I couldn't be both. And now in my forties, I am very comfortable with being both.
But we all have other selves that we could have been had we been brought up in different places or fallen in love with different people. We all have a life that we didn't live, a road that we didn't take. Perhaps the double took it?
The wee doppelganger whizzing down the windy road on a motorbike.
This first poem is by Nick Drake the poet who often gets mistaken by name for Nick Drake the musician. This poem is from Nick Drake's forthcoming collection From The Word Go to be published by Bloodaxe.
Do you know of anyone who has your name that you get mistaken for, or who is your exact double. Do people think you are somebody else? I think this is a great poem to start with. Will be back soon with another one! Goodness. I feel quite shy blogging. I'll have to try and find a blogging style.


Sex, adventures, places, writing – these are the ingredients of romance. Not for English men, though. From Lord Byron to Nick Drake, the great English Romantic has been an effete, narcissistic poseur, neutered by his own blankness.
- The Independent.

Not what was expected, April 16, 2000
Reviewer: A reader from UK
I made the unfortunate mistake of thinking this was some newly found material from the 70's singer/songwriter Nick Drake. Needless to say I was dissapointed.
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- Amazon Website, Reader review of THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

The deserted second hand record exchange;
Just a bald guy and his ponytail
Guarding the memory palace of dead vinyl;
Multiple copies of Rumours and Blue
And the Carpenters’ Greatest Hits in brown and gold;
Pink Moon’s playing on the sound system,
Nick Drake’s last LP; soon he would die
On the night Lord Lucan disappeared, Miss World
Lost her crown as an unmarried mother,
And the sun’s November mercury slipped
Off the indigo horizon at 4.04 pm…
I browse the bins, and luckily I find
Fruit Tree, the deleted posthumous box set –

Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon;
Three big black discs, acetate ammonites
Coded for ancient technology.
I offer Bela Lugosi my credit card;
He stares at the name, my face, then up
To the shivering strip light and the obscure ceiling
Where sound waves collide with dust to conjure
Nick's sad ghost in the live air, whispering:
Know that I love you, know that I care,
Know that I see you, know I’m not there
Then the song fades to recorded silence -
The hushed acoustic of his after-life -
Before the static, the perpetual heart-beat trip
Round the record’s inevitable zero…
Lugosi looks from the dark vacancy,
The tangled wires, the drifting motes
In the creaky auditorium of dust
Where the ghost had sung and disappeared; he grins;
‘Oh man, oh man, I thought you were dead…’

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Hello, this is my first one

08 September 2006
This is the first blog I've ever done. I don't know what it is going to be like. I've heard people get addicted to blogging after a while. I don't know if I will or if I won't. We'll see.
Come and find out later! I'm going to be having different poems from different poets all on the theme of identity with each blog.

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